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We want to create a new short film that explains Akvo. Within three weeks.

This will be the ultimate simplified description – the one my mother can understand with just one view. It should be all she’ll ever need to see, to tell her friends what her son and his friends are doing. We’re thinking it should be no more than two and a half minutes.

Peter and I talked yesterday with Marvin Koppejan, an Amsterdam filmmaker (above), exploring concepts. We’re looking to engage some bright minds here, to take us to the next level. I thought I’d get our collective thoughts down to help everyone make sense of the brief.

So first, what are we doing?

Well, I’ll start with the core description that’s been drummed into our team, and that we use on our website:

“Akvo creates and shares internet tools that help to provide clean water and proper sanitation to those who today have none.”

If that raises an eyebrow, we tend to do the following. First, we set out the core problem – why does clean drinking water and proper sanitation matter so much? On what scale is it lacking in the world. We then go on to explain that several things need to be done to solve the problem. First, the knowledge to make water and sanitation projects work is available but not easy to find and share. Second, funding is there but not easy to connect directly to local projects, or for those projects to connect back to the donors – and as a result, people don’t see what happens with their money.

Peter uses metaphors – he points to NWP’s Smart Water Solutions booklets, and then points to a wiki. He points to a black box (where money goes, and disappears) and he talks about strijkstok, a Dutch expression that says money gets tied up in the process. It relates (I gather) to a violin-type instrument. People are afraid that the money ends up in the process – all twiddling and music – rather than getting to where it should be.

But maybe none of these descriptions are good enough. Another that is often used focuses on comparing us to other websites people already understand:

“Akvo is like a Wikipedia, eBay and YouTube for water and sanitation projects, rolled into one.”

I have some reservations about this approach, mainly because it doesn’t explain what we do – instead just describing what we look like. But it does wake people up and interest them.

But Thomas has got to grips with it quite well. In his Stockholm World Water Week presentation he articulated the scale of our ambition by using the eBay concept, taking it from “I want to sell my bicycle”, into a sense of a huge global market for stuff. Ari Grief has released his movie of that presentation, which you can watch here.

But I’m still not sure this captures everything. Cue some comments made the other day to Thomas and I by Peter Chasse, a friend of Akvo and founder of The Water Project, Inc. in the US:

“Non-profit organisations desperately want to connect their donors to the projects they fund, but they have no effective (and certainly no efficient) way to do it. And still, the donors are daily demanding more and more granular transparency…”

This feels to me a good direction to go. But perhaps we should turn this around and start with the donors? What do we want their world to feel like in one, two or five years’ time? Is Akvo building the digital backroom for development projects, which will make it much easier for people to engage with them?

Certainly there is a huge gap now between people associating with causes and acting for causes. Here I’ll go back to Peter Chasse:

“The game-changing application is one that truly engages a project funder (a church, school, individuals) in the “story” of the project as it unfolds. One of the reasons I think FaceBook Causes, Change.org, Ammado, etc may be failing to live up the hype is that they don’t engage people and then compel further commitments. They tend to be all about the invite. Once users “accept”, there is no story to be a part of. Yet…that’s why people joined FaceBook…to engage in a developing, ongoing “story” in a new forum. When the “Cause” fails to do that…people abandon it.”

Another way of describing what we do is to point towards the amazing work being done by Kiva.org in the United States. Of course, we’re focused entirely on water and sanitation, whereas Kiva’s projects are much wider. But we could explain that we focus on helping the networks of project teams around the world to adapt their systems to the Kiva-style approach, so they can run many more projects, more quickly, with greater transparency. Reporting can be done in the ‘now’ rather than in the future, making everything work better.

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Today, Kiva.org is officially full.

As you can see from the screengrab above, when I checked today, Kiva was completely full. All of its projects are funded. The world clearly has an appetite for their direct model of individual to beneficiary funding. It appeals at so many levels. But right now the world isn’t organised to manage the implications. That’s where we come in. We provide the non-government organisations who coordinate these projects with better tools to organise and describe them.

What style and format do we want for this film? I’m open minded. To date all of our brand imagery has focused on movie and concert poster parodies. The goal has been to dazzle and inspire, to articulate how Akvo helps to empower local individuals and to leave people wanting more.

It’s also been about engaging the local heroes who do the work – to realise that these people have potential and have the ability to solve their local problems. Can the woman build herself a toilet, with instructions from the internet? Can the dude “tap water and save lives”?

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The imagery has been strong, but there has been a light play on male / female role models, and it’s all focused on India and the African continent. It’s played on kitsch computer imagery, too, which has attracted interest in the technology bible Wired (which made Thomas very happy). Indeed open source guru and Akvo friend James Governor was kind enough to describe our imagery as ‘iconoclastic’ (*). It’s an approach that has worked.

What else is influencing my thinking now? Three concepts stand out. First, I’m a big fan of Common Craft Media’s work. Take this example, on Social Media in Plain English.

Second, is the Google Chrome comic book. Chrome is a new web browser that Google announced last week. Rather than launching it with a boring website, like Microsoft would have, they created a comic book. It’s geek chic cool – Scooby Doo meets Silicon Valley.

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The Charity:Water team’s ability to package a concept and inspire action is impressive.

Third, I’m a big fan of charity:water – it’s doing some excellent work right now. Founder Scott Harrison’s Born in September campaign is an astonishingly clever way to motivate people who are born in September to take particular ownership of a short term campaign to fund 333 wells in Ethiopia. It’s the blueprint for the kind of campaigns I’d like to see happening on a vast scale around the world.

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“Hands up everyone who has a mobile phone?” Pratap Nagar, a slum area in the Delhi suburbs. November 2007.

One final thought is that whenever I use this image, which I took in Pratap Nagar, a slum suburb of Delhi last autumn, people get excited. I start describing RSR, our Really Simple Reporting system which means people can send text message updates from the local situation, which go into the specific Akvo project page. Noone can help but be inspired by what this means.

But where we go now is open.

If it’s good, the film will be used on our front page.

So it needs to be good.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder and director of communications at Akvo.

* Lesson in life – if someone describes your imagery as iconoclastic, try to avoid deleting the image they link to in Flickr…